In my high-school most of the top 10 graduates were female. In my undergraduate studies, the top students were again predominantly female. Graduate school was the same. Women dominated the honors roll and dean’s lists. Something happened on the way from graduate school to the top consulting. If you look at Bain, BCG, McKinsey, Booz and Roland Berger, the picture is all the same. There are so few female management consulting partners. At the managing partner level, the problem is even more acute. Besides Orit Gadiesh, the Bain Chairman, not many people can name an influential female consulting partner. Can you?
Management consulting is more merit driven than almost any other profession in the world. There is no other profession which spends the majority of time giving you pages and pages of blunt criticism and areas for improvement. There is no other profession which hires you with the full expectation that you have only a 20% chance of making it. There is no profession which actively manages-out Ivy League graduates if they don’t make the grade.
And the profession gets away with this. In fact it is revered for these very same high standards. It doesn’t matter how old you are, your gender, political affiliation, religion or what color you are. If you are smart, can help clients become wealthy and competitive, can speak and present well, then you will rise to the top as smoothly as cream on a double-filtered Dean & Deluca cappuccino. It is the world’s greatest meritocracy.
Yet, somehow we are led to agonize over the dearth of female consulting partners. At consulting firms there is an active effort to find great female graduates and bring them into the workforce. Consulting firms have a plethora of programs to support and encourage women. We also personally experience this problem. There is lots of hand wringing in our coaching program as well. At this point in time we worry about the number of females in our program. It’s not something we are proud of and it’s something we definitely want to change. But is it our fault?
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t want to put women into the coaching just because they are women. But you know what? It’s impossible to get them. It’s basic supply and demand. There are a few of them, they are in demand and they would rather do other things like serve on boards or take up some lucrative new position. So basically we are trying, the management consulting industry is trying, but everyone is failing. Forget what the consulting firms are telling you. They are failing.
When Bain, McKinsey or BCG have a female in the running for worldwide managing partner, then they can say things are different.
When Deloitte, Accenture or E&Y have a female board member who is not running talent/HR/leadership, then they can say they are succeeding.
When it’s no longer a big deal for a female partner to rise to the top, then they can say they are succeeding.
Right now, they cannot say they are succeeding.
I do not think the problem lies with the industry. Let’s put this in perspective. Assume you are one of the top 50 female graduates from Harvard, Wharton or INSEAD:
• Every firm wants you.
• They are rolling out the red carpet and offering every incentive they can find.
• You have bargaining leverage.
• There is a tussle to offer you the best package. You probably get a premium.
• A support mechanism is put in place to make sure you make it to the top.
Despite all these things, women are still not making it to the top of the management consulting profession. So what gives? I don’t think the problem lies with the consulting firms, business schools or the programs.
Actually, I don’t think there is a problem at all. Women have simply decided that they do not want to be management consulting partners. I can almost hear the gasps from readers. I have surely ruffled some feathers and agitated some people. The truth hurts but like a good management consultant, you need to deal with the facts and ignore emotion or personal blinders.
The media and management consulting firms exaggerate the problem. If really smart women with ample opportunities don’t want to make the journey to partnership, isn’t it naïve for everyone else to say there is a problem? Surely the first rule of good analyses is to speak to the frontline employees. Women are clearly saying they have better opportunities outside of management consulting and want to take it. Who are we to argue with them?
Sexism wins fewer cases and smaller payouts than racism. This is not based on any statistical research but merely the many discussions I have had with consulting colleagues. Between 1970 and the mid-1990s, sexism was a hot topic. It seems to have petered out and today it seems that allegations of racism gain far more attention than claims of sexism. It’s almost as if the world thinks the problem is passé and it is time to move on to something new.
Why do we need this 50/50 balance? Why are we obsessed with having 50/50 balance in everything? Who says a 20/80 ratio is not the answer or a 30/70 ratio?
Impact is not the same as numbers. For women to have a massive impact, you do not need them in numbers. Maybe all you need is one tough and determined woman like Orit at the top. I don’t think she needs or even wants a cadre of female consulting partners around her to show Bain is progressing with regards to female empowerment.
Maybe women are smarter. Do you have any idea how tiring, stressful and unhealthy it is to be a management consulting partner? Consulting partners usually look older than their age, they are constantly travelling, living out of a suit case and literally being hospitalized due to making other people’s problems their own. Just look at what happened to George Stalk. Any rational person would want to enjoy their lives after going through business school. Maybe women understand this better than men. Maybe men should be following them.
Stop treating women like they need a handout. The best female consulting partners can easily hold their own against the top male partner. That’s not even an issue. Personally, if I knew I was succeeding in a career because of an invisible hand guiding and protecting me, why would I stay? Why would I want my success tainted by the whispers that I am part of the management committee’s pet project? I think to make women succeed in management consulting you just need to remove all these strange programs. Women can succeed on merit alone. Stop belittling them by making them think their lack of success is due to other issues. Just measure them on merit.
Remove male-dominated cultural symbols. You have read books like “Business is War” and Sun Tzu’s the “Art of War”. That’s such a load of crock. What does a management consultant know about war? What does a guy who went to a prestigious finishing school, an elite university and never did physical work in his entire life know about war? Consultants should write about what they know. Trust me, very few consultants know anything about war. There are so many other cultural symbols which marginalize women: football tournaments, box seats to the Lakers Games, traditions of partying etc. I am sure many women like doing these things, but all of these things were handed to them and they had to choose to participate or not. What about women selecting some events and the entire company supporting it?
Stop funneling women into the talent, leadership development and organizational design practices. This one gets my blood boiling. In just about any consulting firm, these three practices are dominated by women or led by women. It’s very difficult to say you care about women’s choices when you have this “concentration camp” of talent. I am pretty sure women can do more than this. When you speak to any consulting firm about senior female consulting partners they roll out someone running one of these practices. Give me a break.
Stop assigning female mentors to female consultants. If consulting firms insist that men and women are the same, then why in the world do women need female mentors? That just contradicts every statement about equality. Assign promising women to the top partners even if they are male.
How in the world can a male dominated management committee make a firm attractive to women? You see this all the time. A group of, usually white, male consulting partners make up the most senior management committee and explain to you how they are making the firm a better place for women. What do they know about the needs of women? Do they understand the incredible pressures of being a successful wife and business person? If you want to make a consulting firm truly open to women, then you need female consulting partners on the managing committee involved in making important decisions about the firm. Not a token partner who is involved in HR.
If management consulting firms really want to attract and keep female consultants, then they need to make the industry more attractive. Saying the dearth of women is due to a lack of guidance, coaching and opportunities is a cop-out. It’s a convenient excuse.